FEATURE-Soccer-Asia's minnows have World Cup mountain to climb
PHNOM PENH Oct 8 (Reuters) - With its crumbling concrete terraces and rugged turf, Cambodia's optimistically-named Olympic Stadium is the humble setting for one of the opening matches of world soccer's biggest competition.
While memories of Italy's dramatic penalty shootout victory over France in last year's final remain etched on the minds of millions of fans, the next World Cup, which starts in 976 days, is far from anyone's thoughts.
However, for Asia's minnows, the long and near-impassable road to the 2010 finals in South Africa begins this week, with the sport's whipping boys needing to pull off at least a dozen shock victories to secure one of the region's four berths.
Sitting 178th in the FIFA rankings and without a trophy in five decades of playing international soccer, Cambodia's cash-strapped part-timers admit they do not have a hope of qualifying.
When they play Turkmenistan in Phnom Penh on Thursday, it is all about national pride.
"We don't have a chance but I'm ready to give everything for my country," said Teab Vathanak, Cambodia's top striker, who works night shifts as a security guard in a Phnom Penh casino.
"I don't want our people to keep saying Cambodia are always losing."
Forty-three teams have entered the Asian qualifiers, which feature three knockout rounds and two round-robin group phases.
As well as the four qualifiers, the fifth-ranked side will play off against Oceania's top team for one of the 32 World Cup berths.
Cambodia's Australian coach Scott O'Donell says the World Cup finals are way beyond their reach, although he is confident his spirited team of labourers, soldiers, security guards and traffic policemen can reach the second round for the first time.
"It's achievable, if we play to our potential we can cause an upset," O'Donell told Reuters during a training session at Phnom Penh's dilapidated 1950s-built stadium.
"Maybe they (Turkmenistan) think it's going to be easy, but I don't think so."
He added: "If we reach the second round and meet another team who sneaked in, maybe we can even get to the third round."
After being introduced to soccer in the 1960s by former colonial masters France, Cambodia were fast improvers and reached the semi-finals of the Asian Cup in 1972.
However, a protracted civil war followed, including the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge "killing fields" genocide, which curtailed their progress and led to a 23-year absence from the sport.
Thol Sothearith, who earns $25 a month in the Cambodian army, believes taking part in the World Cup is an achievement in itself.
"I feel great to be in the World Cup, win or lose, it doesn't matter," said the 22-year-old defender, tying up the laces on a pair of well-worn boots.
"I bought these myself for $7," he added with a smile and a laugh. "They're cheap but they work well."
Sothearith is part of one of the world's leakiest defences, who have conceded 22 goals in their last five matches. He compares his team to players from the big European leagues and says Cambodia's poverty means there is little chance of success.
"We lack support, both morally and materially," said Sothearith, who like most of the players travels along the dusty, potholed roads to training on an aging Honda motorcycle.
"We don't have good enough nutrition, our pay is low. There is no incentive to play well."
In a country where a third of the 14 million people live on less than $1 a day, striker Vathanak's monthly salary of $130 make him a high roller, although he admits that having two jobs makes his game suffer.
"Being a footballer and working at the same time is never easy," he said.
"But I love the game, so I keep playing. I'm trying to save money to buy some new boots."
Policeman Sam El Nasa is one of the team's most experienced players, a veteran of Cambodia's last World Cup "campaign" in 2001, when they drew 1-1 with the Maldives but lost their other five matches, letting in 22 goals and scoring only twice.
"That's an old story, it's the past, forget it," Nasa said dismissively.
"Let's see what we can do this time around."
Although he is hungry for success, coach O'Donell says there is more to life than winning matches.
"Teams like us reaching the World Cup, it's not going to happen," said the television soccer pundit and former Australian A-League defender.
"They know this is the biggest game of their lives. They're doing this for their country and for themselves. All we can ask for is their best."
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